Obituary: Enoch Powell

`The more popular he became the more unacceptable he was to the elite'
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The Independent Online
Most British politicians achieve fame because of achievements as Prime Minister or as a high-ranking Cabinet minister, writes Professor Denis Kavanagh. Enoch Powell's ministerial career is insignificant - a year at the Treasury and three years as minister of health, only one of which was in the Cabinet - but he is one of the towering figures in post- war British politics and that is because of his speeches. He has already been the subject of more than a dozen biographies, more than any other post-war politician except for Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

What fascinates about Powell's career is its combination of the prophet and the pariah. He was ahead of his time in breaking with the post-war consensus, making a case for the free market, and warning of the consequences of membership of the European Community. But colleagues shunned him after 1968, as they shunned nobody else.

Enoch Powell's career abounds in paradoxes. He loved institutions, particularly the House of Commons, the Conservative party, his university and his country. But he was also a maverick, though a gifted one, like Joseph Chamberlain and Oswald Mosley. Like them, his passionate commitment to causes led to complaints that he lacked "judgement" and was "not a team player", to breaches with colleagues and ultimately to a split with his party.

At times, his attachment to a particular principle was hardly self-advancing. He refused office in 1952, resigned as part of Peter Thorneycroft's Treasury team in 1957, refused office again in 1959 and, finally, Alec Home's invitation to join his Cabinet in 1963. Powell was not sociable enough to be a successful conspirator, although the pro-Butler faction of the Cabinet, which sought to block the succession of Lord Home in 1963, met at his house in South Eaton Place. When Home formed a government Butler and most of the other objectors joined, while Powell remained on the sidelines. After Powell's 1968 speech on race Ted Heath dismissed him as the party's defence spokesman.

Powell, like Thatcher, gave rise to an "ism". There are books on his political ideas and editions of his essays and speeches, something which could be said of no other post-war British politician. Powell's speeches dealt with the big issues - relations between the individual and the state, the tensions between state sovereignty, national identity and the European Community, the nature of patriotism and the very purpose of politics. He memorably dismissed the 1970 Heath/Wilson general election as a choice between a man with a pipe and a man with a boat.

In the early years Powellism was associated with free-market economics, reductions in public spending, cuts in income tax and a monetarist analysis of inflation. He was preaching economic Thatcherism a decade before Baroness Thatcher. Then, after the speech on race and immigration in 1968, Powellism was forever to be associated with race. Later it came to encompass the rejection of membership of the European Community and then preserving Ulster within the United Kingdom.

On each of these issues Powell stood outside the frontbench liberal consensus. His stand on race made him the most reviled member of the House of Commons and a hate figure on university campuses. Yet polls showed that he was one of the most popular figures in the land and for a time he was favoured to succeed Heath as Conservative leader. Within a fortnight of the 1968 speech he had received over 120,000 letters of support. He had struck a chord with the British people. He was saying the unsayable.

Yet the speech that made him also destroyed him. Race was the only subject that brought him majority public support; but the more popular he became the more unacceptable he was to the political elite. He had gone beyond the political pale and many of his long-standing friendships were ruptured. Heath and those around him regarded Powell's speeches as a bid for the leadership. He disagreed: "You don't calculate. Politicians are like seeds and can't control where the wind will take them." Powell and race became synonymous and he attracted some squalid followers.

Essentially, Powell was a British nationalist - his grandfather had emigrated from Wales to the Black Country. Because he believed that self- consciousness was the essence of nationhood he rejected black immigration, Britain's membership of the European Community, or a role for the Dublin government in Ulster politics. These were issues above party politics.

His refusal to support Britain's membership of the European Community led him in the February 1974 general election to the ultimate political betrayal when he told his supporters to vote Labour. When, to his great surprise, he awoke to learn that Heath had lost the election he returned to his morning bath singing the Te Deum. Twelve months later, after Heath had lost another election and was being challenged for the party leadership by Thatcher, Powell was no longer able to profit, he was now an Ulster Unionist for Down South.

When he lost his Commons seat in 1987 Powell rejected the after-life of the retired politician. He dismissed suggestions of writing an autobiography, which he said, in 1989, would be "like a dog returning to its vomit, to its shit", and refused to provide a running commentary on the Government's performance of the day.

Powell was a throwback to the 19th century in demonstrating the power of an independent MP. He dispensed with research teams and select committees and spurned directorships. He was the only MP who refused to comply with the register of MPs' interests. With pointed questions and speeches in Parliament - and outside - he showed what a single MP could do. He regarded the role of the MP as simply to force ministers to explain themselves on the floor of the House of Commons.

In his life of Joseph Chamberlain (Joseph Chamberlain, 1977) Powell noted that all political lives, unless terminated prematurely, end in failure. In fact, Powell self-destructed on the British party system and political culture. The more he appealed beyond the Conservative Party to the country at large, the less acceptable he was to colleagues. Many of Powell's single-issue campaigns failed. But, as he told a television interviewer in 1989, "I may have failed. That does not mean I was wrong."

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